I recently finished a brilliant book called The Unbearable Lightness of Being, by Milan Kundera. It was brilliant in several respects, but one of the most brilliant elements of it, for me, was its portrayal of “the Left,” and “Leftists.” The thread of the Left, according to this book, is not the thread of this ideology or that doctrine. A Leftist is not necessarily a communist or an anarchist or a democrat or a republican (though these ideals have been and are espoused by those who identify as Leftists). The thread instead is that of the idealists who sat around my dining room table this morning, conversing with bright eyes and loud voices.
The conversations were held by seven men (some of us scruffy, all in our twenties) in loud voices, over coffee. We’d been having the same conversations for the past few hundred years, if not longer. They were questions of strategy, answered by streams of shouts and murmurs unconsciously crafted to affirm values and confirm common identity. We were tropes, in all our scruffy, bright eyed glory, and there was a subtle appreciation of this, expressed in our tacit commitment to our uphill battles, in our upholding the mantle of underdog.
Kundera doesn’t use these words. He uses the phrase The Grand March. “What makes a leftist a leftist is not this or that theory,” writes Kundera, “but his ability to integrate any theory into the kitsch called the Grand March.” Later, he writes that “The Grand March is the splendid march on the road to brotherhood, equality, justice, happiness; it goes on and on, obstacles notwithstanding, for obstacles there must be if the march is to be the Grand March.”
As a Leftist myself, I can tell you that this is true. In the past few years I have been a Democrat, a socialist, an anarchist, a (small d) democrat. But all the while I have been a Leftist, because the whole time I have been marching the grand march, a glorious march of human progress towards a better world. It is the uphill march towards what perhaps will always be a losing battle. The marchers are scruffy and bright eyed. They believe, we believe, that everything is at stake. The march is romantic, and it can give you purpose in an uncertain world.
You may be able to discern my current ambivalence towards the march. There can be no denying the marchers the legitimacy of their urgency. Their concerns are real. Their solutions, when tenable, are worth working towards and maybe worth fighting for. But there are risks inherent in any march; namely, the twin risks of being trampled, and of trampling others. I’ve written about these risks before. In my first column I wrote about the dangers of blindly adhering to externally-sources dogmas and ideologies. In my second column, I wrote about the tendency of those who do adhere to strong ideologies to dismiss those whose values they (wrongly) perceive as foreign to their own. These are real personal and social risks for Leftists, who can adopt an ugly, insular, and unproductive sneer which really does begin to stick after excessive use.
Sneers are always unattractive, but the reason they’re so dangerous for Leftists in particular is that your sneer won’t save you from being thrown under the Lefty bus, from being trampled beneath the Grand March, which can change directions and speeds without much notice. Do not put all of your energy into being a good marcher/demagogue. Set some store by being a good person. Don’t spend your whole Sunday arguing with your scruffy friends and forget to call your dad for his birthday. Being an idealist doesn’t prevent you from also being an insensitive jerk.